Timika Mitchell was living in the Salvation Army shelter in Austin, Tex., when she developed her first home page on the World Wide Web. A homeless person with an Internet home page may seem to represent a scrambling of priorities. But for Mitchell-an unmarried mother of two-her home page is a source of pride and, she hopes, an entry point into the high-tech economy. Thanks in part to her abilities to create on the Web, this tall, talkative, self-directed young African-American woman landed a job with Time Warner, moved into her own apartment-and created a second Web page, where she plans to publish her poetry.
Austin boasts one of the highest per capita rates of Internet use in the world and has recently been cited as the nation’s fastest growing job market. On the west side of town lies one of the world’s leading high-tech centers, with major semiconductor manufacturing firms, a booming new media industry, and tens of thousands of computer professionals. But Mitchell lives in East Austin-a poverty zone segregated from the rest of Austin by an interstate highway. In her neighborhood, known as the 11th and 12th Streets Corridor, the median annual income is $6,000 per year. The area suffers from high unemployment, poor schools, drugs, gangs, and violence.
Computers are still clearly beyond the means of most such low-income citizens, and will be for many years, even if prices decline significantly. WebTV, a new service recently acquired by Microsoft, provides access to the Web and e-mail over TV sets, but its access fee of about $30 per month is too high for most poor families, as is the $200 box required to use it. When Newt Gingrich briefly posed the idea of tax credits for poor people who buy computers, he was widely ridiculed and quickly dropped the idea. (“Let Them Eat Laptops,” one headline read.) Such a scheme would be hugely expensive; Michael Kinsley noted in the New Yorker that subsidizing poor Americans’ purchases of $1,000 computers would cost the U.S. Treasury $40 billion.
The disparities in access to the Internet in the United States are well documented. Computers are present in almost half of urban households with incomes over $35,000 per year, according to a survey last year by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. By contrast, only 8 percent of households with incomes less than $10,000 have a computer. Most of the Internet users in low-income brackets are students, who typically have connections through their schools. In Austin and other high-tech communities, the disparity in computer ownership between rich and poor is even more pronounced.
But communities and leaders throughout the United States are beginning to come to grips with the growing gap between the poor and the affluent in their access to information technology. Since most well-paying jobs now demand computer skills and a rising number require familiarity with the Internet, consensus is growing that access to the Internet is as important a part of civic life as parks, public transit, libraries, and cultural centers. In a dramatic testament to this point of view, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates recently announced that he will donate $200 million to U.S. public libraries to expand such facilities.
One way to bridge the gulf between computer haves and have-nots is to provide Internet connections through publicly accessible terminals. In this spirit, for the past three years we have been exploring how to bring the Internet and computer skills to the low-income, largely minority community of East Austin. An operation called Austin Free-Net installed and maintains public access computers throughout the city. In cooperation with the nonprofit Austin Learning Academy, teachers and volunteers are striving to link the Internet to the real-world experiences of Americans whose circumstances and backgrounds differ substantially from the typical Internet-using population. We’re finding that community-based computer networking, accessible through public-access terminals, is a cost-effective way to introduce information technologies to low-income neighborhoods and to engage their citizens in using them.
The Austin Free-Net is part of a nationwide movement, known as “community networks.” More than 200 such networks are running in the United States, according to Douglas Schuler, author of New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Some community networks receive modest grants from local governments or, in a few instances, from the federal government. These efforts are shoestring operations, often staffed by volunteers and using donated equipment and telephone lines.